US Africa Command (AFRICOM) revealed its assessment on 29 May that Moscow recently deployed fighter aircraft to Libya in order to support Russian state-sponsored private military contractors (PMCs) operating on the ground there.

Russian military aircraft are likely to provide close air support and offensive fires for the Wagner Group PMC that is supporting the Libyan National Army's (LNA) fight against the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA). The aircraft arrived in Libya, from an airbase in Russia, after transiting Syria, where it is assessed they were repainted to camouflage their Russian origin. 

Russia is clearly trying to tip the scales in its favor in Libya. Just like I saw them doing in Syria, they are expanding their military footprint in Africa using government-supported mercenary groups like Wagner,” observed Gen Stephen Townsend, AFRICOM commander. “For too long, Russia has denied the full extent of its involvement in the ongoing Libyan conflict. Well, there is no denying it now. We watched as Russia flew fourth-generation jet fighters to Libya – every step of the way. Neither the LNA nor private military companies can arm, operate and sustain these fighters without state support – support they are getting from Russia.”

Russia has employed state-sponsored Wagner in Libya to conceal its direct role and to afford Moscow plausible deniability of its malign actions. AFRICOM assesses Moscow's military actions have prolonged the Libyan conflict and exacerbated casualties and human suffering on both sides. 

The world heard Mr Haftar [self-styled Field Marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar, commander of the LNA] declare he was about to unleash a new air campaign. That will be Russian mercenary pilots flying Russian-supplied aircraft to bomb Libyans,” Townsend stated. 

The command further assesses that Russia is not interested in what is best for the Libyan people, but is working to achieve its own strategic goals instead. “If Russia seizes basing on Libya's coast, the next logical step is they deploy permanent long-range anti-access area denial (A2AD) capabilities,” commented Gen Jeff Harrigian, Commander, US Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa. “If that day comes, it will create very real security concerns on Europe's southern flank.”

Russia’s destabilising actions in Libya will also exacerbate the regional instability that has driven the migration crisis affecting Europe.

Cynics point to the apparent low resolution of the satellite images of Russian aircraft on Libyan airfields as proof of their ‘fake news’ origins – ignoring the fact the US military routinely downgrades the resolution of publicly released imagery to maintain uncertainty as to the exact capabilities of its surveillance assets. (Image: US AFRICOM)

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